Family Traveling Home From Funeral Watches As American Airlines Gives Their Seats Away

Updated with statement from American Airlines

On Sunday a family traveling from Philadelphia to Dallas – Fort Worth on American Airlines flight 410 had their seats given away to standby passengers as they stood at the gate.

The Nelson family, including their 8 month old child, had spent the past several days with Liz Nelson’s father as he passed away, and then at his funeral.

American Airlines let them know the day before their flight that their 1 p.m. departure was delayed 16 minutes to 1:16 p.m. and that was their undoing.

As a result they planned for a 1:16 p.m. departure. The husband got stuck at the TSA checkpoint because of their stroller, but they had built in enough time for this. Except that while they were in line at security American moved their flight time up 16 minutes – back to on time.

They got the flight change text 17 minutes before their new departure time. Liz Nelson headed straight to the gate while her husband waited on the stroller at security. She approached the gate agent, and this is what she shares unfolded:

Richard, the desk attendant, proceeded to ask my name. He also informed me there were several people on the standby list that needed to get through. I figured he took my name so they could not give away those seats while assigning seats to those flying standby.

After I gave him my name I stepped aside to call my husband and tell him to run. Our phone call lasted a minute and he arrived at the gate when we hung up. That’s how close he was. While on the one minute call the Richard, yelled to me “your phone call doesn’t matter, you aren’t on this flight anymore.”

That’s when, she says, agents started calling standby passengers. They got sent to Customer Service for rebooking, told they “should have got [to the gate] sooner.”

They found customer service unstaffed, so they returned to gate B8. The same gate agent offered them standby on a later flight or confirmed travel the next day. They spent the night in Philadelphia without their checked luggage and “had to purchase new toiletries, Pijamas, diapers and formula.”

Ironically the flight did wind up four minutes late, so it’s entirely possible the family – or at least the mother and baby – were at the gate within the allowable period before actual departure, just not the last-minute re-scheduled departure.

I’ve reached out to American Airlines and will update this post with any response. Update: American responds, “We’re reviewing this issue and have reached out to the family to apologize and learn more about their experience.”

However I think that there are two lessons here,

  • You can lose your seat if you aren’t in the gate area when it’s time to board. At American Airlines the rule is ’15 minutes to departure’ so that the gate agent has a chance to process standbys who are trying to get on the flight into the seats of anyone who won’t make the flight. This is going to get even tighter and more stressful as American moves to single agent boarding, since there will be fewer people at gates to get this all done.

  • Airlines also can change your departure time at any time. When a flight is delayed, you have a new departure time and the 15 minutes count back from that. However sometimes an airline delays a flight… and un-delays it. It’s rare that this happens so close to actual departure time, though.

The family was present at the required time to board their flight, based on the departure time of their aircraft they were given by American – which was valid up until mere minutes before. I believe the right thing to do was to give the family their seats. The agent should have stopped processing standby passengers. If anyone standing by was already given a boarding pass, preventing the family from traveling, they should have been offloaded.

But that takes extra work. It takes creativity and thought. And that takes time. They’d have to make good with passengers being offloaded, too. The safe thing for the agent is just to keep processing standbys. They won’t get in trouble for doing that.

And under current management American Airlines prioritizes the operation over taking care of customers. Stopping what they were doing to fix this might have risked turning the aircraft quickly, as the agent is required to do and measured against.

(HT: Live and Let’s Fly)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @121Pilot, you are the only person who gets it, in these comments. +1 from me.

    @Mak, yup all the airlines just suckered us in, to giving them money, when they could have just reorganized and probably survived without taxpayer’s money. Another +1 from me.

  2. Love it when a KAREN says “I will never use AA again because…..” The other airline is better. Then they are booking a trip the next day. They then bad mouth the other airline also.

  3. We had a very bad experience with American Airlines 2 years ago. Start to finish, rude uncaring staff. I am very sorry for the Nelson family’s experience under such sad and trying circumstances.

  4. A few weeks ago you were singing the praises of AA and how they got a Family who was going to misconnect TO A FUNERAL.

    I’m betting you were the meanest kid in school picking on others all the time. Your mother must be proud.

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